Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Give us this day our daily bread"

I've sometimes wondered how to reconcile the reality of crippling poverty with some of the promises that Jesus makes in the Bible. Jesus teaches His disciples to pray "Give us each day our daily bread" (Luke 11:3), and then a few verses later he promises that "every one who asks receives" (Luke 11:10). Now, I am sure that there are many people throughout the world who earnestly pray the Lord's Prayer every day, and yet starve. Where is their daily bread? Why are they not receiving what they ask for, even though it's something Jesus specifically told them to ask for? Why isn't God holding up His end of the deal?

I think I got some insight into this problem on Monday when I talked with a man who has been working in Guatemala for the past few years. For 18 months he worked with people in Guatemala City who literally lived in a garbage dump. They dug their homes out of the garbage, and the floors were garbage and the walls were garbage. For the past year he's been working in the rural areas of Guatemala, where 50 percent of people are so poor that they can't afford sufficient food for their families. Here's what he said:

"Now when I say the Lord's Prayer, it's just very different for me. It's much more immediate, that it's not something just on Sunday, but it's actually a daily prayer there for them. 'Give us this day our daily bread.' And I think it's important to remember it doesn't say 'my daily bread,' it says 'our daily bread,' that it's for the whole world. You know, it's not, 'Oh, give me enough for me to get by today.' No. It's 'Give us -- give all of us -- our daily bread,' and I have a greater understanding of that now."

As usual, the problem is not with God, but with us. He has certainly provided us with enough food to feed the world. But selfishness and indifference keep us from seeing that those who are hungry get the food they need. There's no excuse for it. We are responsible for one another. I probably eat enough for a small village, and somewhere a child is swallowing rocks to fill the awful emptiness in his belly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Obama, McCain and the abolition of man

Since several people have taken issue with my non-support for both of our fine presidential candidates, I figured I'd expand on my reasoning a bit and answer a few objections.

Here's my fundamental concern: Both Barack Obama and John McCain are unwitting (I hope) advocates of what C.S. Lewis referred to as "the abolition of man." Their positions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, in light of their beliefs about the beginning of life, don't just mean death for millions of tiny humans; they mean the death of human morality and, thus, of humanity itself.

If you say, as Senator McCain essentially does, "Yes, an embryo is a living human being with human rights, but it's OK to kill it if there's a good reason," that's not the first step down a slippery slope. That's leaping off a precipice. Once you say that deliberately taking innocent human life is acceptable in certain situations, morality is over.

The inalienable right to life is the most basic of all human rights. It's the foundation upon which all other rights stand. Start justifying exceptions to this absolute law, and the whole edifice of morality comes crashing down, not gradually, but in an instant. Gone.

It may take a while for people to notice. The building still looks pretty sturdy.

But it's an illusion, a trick of the mind. There's nothing there. We're debating a mirage. Without certain absolute values, there is no morality, no right or wrong, no good or bad.

And what used to be humanity is left to be governed by animal desires and brute force.

Am I being hysterical, over-dramatic? I hope so. But I don't see how to escape the conclusion.

So yeah, I don't want to support either Obama or McCain, because I think they're both extraordinarily scary candidates. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tells me that, as a Catholic, I'm under no obligation to support either of them. Plus, I live in Washington state, where even if I could vote 100,000 times for either candidate I wouldn't affect the outcome.

For the record, I do think it's morally legitimate to vote for the lesser of two evils with the intention of limiting evil. I imagine I'll do it many times in my life. But not this year. I don't want either Obama or McCain to see my vote in their column and get the idea that I support their vision.

I'm not just shirking my civic duty. I plan to write letters to both Senator Obama and Senator McCain to let them know why they won't be receiving my vote. They'll never personally read them, of course, but I've got to think a letter is significantly more impactful than a single ballot. And I'll vote for some quixotic candidate whose hand I wouldn't be hesitant to shake.

Writing this post has left me in rather a dark mood. I don't like to think too deeply about the state of the world. In times like these it's good to remember the words of Jesus: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

In the hierarchy of values ...

... freedom of conscience is easily trumped by convenience, say Hillary Clinton and the president of Planned Parenthood in a New York Times op-ed opposing a proposed regulation from the Department of Health & Human Services that would protect health care providers from being forced to violate their consciences. It might be interpreted by some doctors as "a free pass to deny access to contraception," they ominously warn.

"Conscience" is such a quaint, outmoded idea these days, anyway, useful only to invoke when one wants to justify something completely unconscionable.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hospice provides true death with dignity

The dying need ‘comprehensive, compassionate end-of-life care,’ not physician-assisted suicide, say palliative care providers


End-of-life issues have been thrust into the spotlight in recent months by the debate surrounding Initiative 1000, the November ballot measure that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Washington state if approved by voters.

Proponents of the initiative point to the potential physical suffering and loss of autonomy associated with terminal illnesses to support their position. According to the Yes! on I-1000 Web site, “When facing the prospect of agonizing pain, breathlessness, nausea and vomiting, or loss of dignity at the end of life, many patients achieve tremendous peace of mind if they know there is a safe and dignified alternative.”

For supporters of the initiative, that alternative would entail ingesting a massive and lethal overdose of doctor-prescribed barbiturates.

But area providers of hospice care say that services are already readily available to help people with terminal illnesses live and die in comfort, control and dignity, without the moral and practical problems raised by physician-assisted suicide.

What is hospice?

Hospice is the subset of palliative care specifically for people with a prognosis of less than six months to live – the same population targeted by Initiative 1000. Like all palliative care, hospice aims to control the symptoms and pain associated with a patient’s condition rather than trying to cure it. But hospice, which is fully covered by Medicare and most insurance plans, is about more than just reducing pain.

“It’s holistic care aimed at supporting a patient’s emotional, spiritual and psychosocial needs – body, mind and spirit,” said Mark Rake-Marona, director of Franciscan Hospice and Palliative Care in Pierce County. “And we care not only for the patient, but also for the family and anyone who’s affected by the terminal illness.”

Most hospice care takes place in the patient’s home, though some hospice providers have inpatient facilities, like the 20-bed Franciscan Hospice House, for patients who need more intensive treatment. Hospice providers employ a wide range of specialists to ensure that patients are as comfortable as possible.

“We have physicians, nurses, social workers, chaplains, we have a cadre of comfort therapists that provide massage, music, aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, art therapy, and we have hospice aides that provide personal care like bathing,” said Rake-Marona. “It’s a pretty comprehensive service.”

Contrary to the common misconception that “hospice equals death,” the philosophy of hospice is to neither hasten nor postpone death, said Lyn Miletich, director of public relations for Providence Hospice of Seattle. “Hospice is more about quality of life, and having that until the end of life, than it is about dying,” she said.

In fact, said Rake-Marona, hospice’s holistic approach to care is so successful that “we actually discharge 20 percent of our patients that are admitted alive, meaning they don’t die.”

Controlling pain

While supporters of Initiative 1000 point to unbearable physical suffering as a reason for legalizing physician-assisted suicide, major medical advances have been made in recent years in the treatment of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms of terminal illnesses, said Dr. Mimi Pattison, the medical director for Franciscan Hospice and Palliative Care.

“It’s extremely unusual that we cannot get symptoms under satisfactory control to meet the wishes of the patient and family,” said Dr. Pattison.

In fact, hospice providers have become so adept at alleviating physical suffering that unbearable pain is no longer a valid argument for assisted suicide, said Dr. William Toffler, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University and the national director of Physicians for Compassionate Care.

“It’s absolutely mythical that (pain is) the reason we need (physician-assisted suicide),” he said. “The solution to pain is to redouble our efforts to address the pain, not to eliminate the person who has the pain.”

Control and dignity

Perhaps a larger issue than pain for proponents of physician-assisted suicide is the desire for a sense of autonomy, dignity and control at the end of life. But this is exactly what hospice affords, say providers.

“Our philosophy at hospice is that the patient is in charge of their care plan,” said Dr. Pattison, explaining that patients can determine what kind of treatments they want and don’t want.

“We partner with them in their care rather than having them be passive about it, so I think they feel more in control of their lives,” said Rake-Marona. “We support them towards the goals of safe and comfortable dying, self-determined life closure and effective grieving for the family and significant loved ones.”

“Self-determined life closure,” he said, means that patients are able to take care of their financial, legal, familial, relational and spiritual affairs, “so that they are able to leave the world peacefully and dignified, knowing that they had as little unfinished business as possible left on earth.”

Dr. Pattison highlighted the importance, for both patients and their families, of the natural process of dying that hospice care enables.

“In seeing the natural dying process and the beauty and the strength in that process,” she said, “what happens to patients and their families, the reconciliation, the love, the forgiveness – all of the stages that people need to go through to be able to die peacefully – to think that that would be artificially foreshortened (by physician-assisted suicide) would be just tragic.”

The discussion around physician-assisted suicide and end-of-life issues is inevitably emotionally charged and fueled by the fears that many people have about the end of life. But people can take heart, said Rake-Marona, in knowing that hospice care can effectively address many of those concerns.

“Comprehensive, compassionate end-of-life care is available to folks,” he said. “All of the fears that people have are fears that we have committed our lives to improving.”

The Catholicism Project

I'm pretty excited about this. Father Robert Barron, a Chicago-based priest and professor who podcasts his Sunday sermons and gives his Catholic take on everything from Christopher Hitchens to "The Dark Knight" on Youtube, is working on a 10-part video series entitled "The Catholicism Project," which looks pretty awesome. He's looking for funding to complete production, so visit his website if you feel moved to donate. Here's the trailer:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why I won't support Obama or McCain

I don't have high expectations for political candidates. Google's corporate motto sums up my standard: "Don't be evil."

I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican, neither liberal nor conservative. I'm just as orthodox a Catholic as I know how to be, and I can't seem to square that with the platforms of either major party. Perhaps such a "plague o' both your houses" position is naive or irresponsible, but it isn't born out of mere contrarianism. Everyone wants to belong, and it would be nice to have some political camp to call home.

So I'd like to be able to get behind Barack Obama or John McCain and feel hip and stylish or old and crotchety, respectively. They both seem like nice enough guys who generally want to do good. But I can't get past the fact that they both support causes that are intrinsically evil, like abortion and/or embryonic stem cell research.

It has always been obvious to me -- completely independent of any religious conviction -- that human life begins at the moment of conception, i.e., when a sperm fertilizes an egg. (If it doesn't begin then, when does it?) It has also always been obvious to me that it is always wrong to deliberately take the life of an innocent human being. (If that's not wrong, what is?)

Those two propositions, taken together, lead me to the conclusion that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are never morally acceptable, regardless of the circumstances.

Obama supports both abortion and ESCR; McCain supports the latter. Which leaves me hoping that the two senators either haven't given their positions on these issues much thought, or that they're both incredibly stupid. Because otherwise I can't escape the conclusion that both our candidates for the presidency are moral monsters. Let me explain.

If you accept the premise that murder is wrong, the only morally legitimate way I can see to support abortion or ESCR is to claim to know that human life does not begin at conception. But neither Obama nor McCain claims to know that, or even to believe it.

When Obama was asked at the Compassion Forum on April 18 whether he personally believed that life begins at conception, he said, "I don't presume to know the answer to that question." Now, either Obama was simply being insincere and was trying to appear humble while painting pro-lifers as presumptuous, or else he knowingly supports the destruction of what may or may not, for all he knows, be living human beings. I refer him to Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, who asks: If you're out in the woods hunting, and you hear a rustling in the bushes, and you're not sure whether it's a deer or your fellow hunter, what do you do? Don't shoot! If you honestly don't know whether a zygote or an embryo or a fetus is a living human being, Senator Obama, don't destroy it. That's at least criminal negligence, if not manslaughter.

McCain's moral inconsistency is perhaps even worse. At the Saddleback Forum on August 16, Rick Warren asked him at what point a baby is entitled to human rights. McCain immediately replied, to much applause, "At the moment of conception." So in supporting ESCR, McCain is endorsing the destruction of what he believes (correctly) to be living human beings with human rights. That's the definition of murder.

I understand that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are deeply personal, emotionally charged issues. But in any moral system worthy of the name, there are some things you just can't do, even in the worst circumstances, or with the best intentions. That our presidential candidates don't seem to understand this, and that they both employ such duplicitous and disingenuous rhetoric to obscure the reality of their positions, makes me fear for the future.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We're married!

Today is Wholly Catholic's first birthday, and I thought I'd celebrate by actually posting something for a change.

One of the major reasons I've done so little posting in recent months is that Jeanette and I were spending pretty much every waking moment either doing stuff for our wedding or stressing about how much stuff there was to do for our wedding.

Well, the wedding has finally come and gone, and I think it took, so Jeanette and I are now married!

God really came through for us, as we always knew He somehow would. It was a long, tortuous, and sometimes torturous road to the altar, but He carried us through it all, and our wedding day was more beautiful than we could reasonably have hoped for.

We were married on Saturday, August 30 at St. Petronille Catholic Church in my hometown, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and we had our reception at the Brookfield Zoo. Here are a few pictures:

Our traditional rehearsal dinner the night before at a local Italian restaurant, in honor of Jeanette's heritage.

The most important part of the day/my life: our vows.

Our traditional neo-pagan unity candle ceremony.

Our dear friend Tim wrote us a beautiful a cappella quartet based on one of my favorite Bible verses: "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Kissing my beautiful bride.

Having a well-deserved drink in the limo.

It was a beautiful day, so we took pictures at Lake Ellyn. Notice my old high school football team winning in the background.

Cutting the cake neither of us had time to eat.

The traditional part of the reception where the groom embarrasses the bride by singing a Sinatra song.

And, finally, getting down (and getting laughed at) on the dance floor.

So, all in all, easily the most joyful day of my life.